Exclusive: Tommy Hilfiger Reflects on Past & Present Success, And Why Fashion Needs to be More Democratic

Three burly security guards are escorting a silver-haired man to his VIP booth inside one of New York’s trendiest hotspots, Public Hotel.

The packed room is dark, but as he walks by, photographers light it up with flashes. Champagne is flowing, rapper Travis Scott is onstage, and the impeccably dressed gentleman sits next to Gigi Hadid, Nicki Minaj, Winnie Harlow and Hailey Baldwin. The celebrities, in town for New York Fashion Week, perk up when they see him — Tommy Hilfiger is right at home.

The designer has brought together the most popular people in fashion, music and sports for the September launch of his debut collaboration with Formula 1 race car driver Lewis Hamilton. While the party is elaborate in detail, it embraces the spirit Hilfiger set out to create as a teenager in 1969 with his first store, People’s Place, a rock ‘n’ roll-inspired destination in hometown Elmira, N.Y., that he stocked with bell-bottomed jeans from Manhattan.

Tommy Hilfiger
Tommy Hilfiger inside is Madison Avenue office.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott Photo

“It was a community [back then],” the designer told FN a few days after the bash, perched on the famous denim-patch couch in his Madison Avenue office in New York. “It was about music, fashion and experiences — and meeting different people who were into the culture. That was the beginning point.”

By the time Hilfiger started his namesake brand in 1985, his intuition for working with rising tastemakers and creating communities around them was finely honed. In some ways, he had mastered the art of influencer marketing before the term was ever coined.

“Twenty years ago, Destiny’s Child performed for us at a Macy’s fashion show,” said Hilfiger. “The girls were performing onstage, and I turned to my brother, Andy, and said: ‘Who’s the one in the middle? She’s going to be a star.’ Beyoncé was 16.”

Over the years, Hilfiger has worked with nearly every big name — from musicians Snoop Dogg, Aaliyah and Britney Spears to top models such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.

His knack for connecting with the right people at the right time has proved profitable through the years — most significantly in the 1990s, when his label catapulted to commercial success and double-digit growth — and it’s one of the reasons the brand, owned by PVH Corp. since 2010, is in the middle of resurgence.

In fact, revenues for Tommy Hilfiger rose 15 percent to $1 billion in the second quarter, with an increase of 20 percent on the international side and 9 percent in North America, compared with the same period a year earlier.

What’s more, the parent company expects revenues for the brand to jump 9 percent in the second half of 2018, thanks to recent partnerships — namely with Formula 1 champ Hamilton, who signed on in March — and marketing campaigns.

“Tommy’s continued success at pushing the boundaries, celebrating individuality and reinventing classic styles has always resonated with me,” Hamilton told FN. “I knew that he would be a mentor who would give me the creative freedom to express myself in the design studio.”

The duo’s recently launched capsule collection — inspired by Hamilton’s tattoos and street style, and Hilfiger’s heritage classics — is filled with slide sandals, sneakers, boots and apparel. The collection debuted last month in Shanghai at the designer’s runway show.

Nicki Minaj, Lewis Hamilton, Winnie Harlow, Tommy Hilfiger, Hailey Baldwin
Nicki Minaj, Lewis Hamilton, Winnie Harlow, Tommy Hilfiger and Hailey Baldwin at the Tommy x Lewis NYFW launch party.
CREDIT: Courtesy of company

“We look at everything and everyone, and think about how to move the needle forward. If that means doing a collab with someone who is doing something breakthrough and new, we consider it. But we have to like what they are doing or what kind of people they are,” Hilfiger said on his influencer strategy. “With Lewis, he’s the perfect example. He’s an incredible person. He has his own point of view in style. He loves fashion, and he brings his ideas. He’s as big as any rock star in the world.”

The Hip Factor

While Hamilton and other ambassadors are helping Hilfiger resonate with the public today, it hasn’t always been so smooth.

In the early 2000s, the Hilfiger label had lost its way. For starters, it faltered after being overexposed and widely distributed in lower-end stores, according to the designer. It had ventured into categories outside his strength like home goods and perfume. And he also had a very public fallout with the hip-hop world, once his loyal customers.

The 67-year-old isn’t likely to let that happen again. Today, he’s more motivated than ever to develop innovative products and create new ways to break through. His aim: to keep the brand young and relevant.

Enter Gigi Hadid.

milan fashion week, tommy hilfiger spring 2018 ready to wear, gigi hadid
Gigi Hadid walks the runway with Tommy Hilfiger at his spring ’18 show in Milan.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Shortly after walking in his fall ’15 show, the emerging supermodel became his global ambassador. Having Hadid appear in ads wasn’t enough, though. The two have teamed up for four capsule collections over the last three years.

By all accounts, the collaborations all were immediate hits with consumers. In September 2016, the Tommy x Gigi collection was unveiled at Hilfiger’s first see-now, buy-now runway show, which generated a ninefold increase in traffic to Tommy.com in the 48 hours following the event. Multiple styles sold out in 24 hours after the show, and sales grew by double digits across the women’s category, according to the company.

Sensing he was onto something — and his overarching desire to make fashion more open to the public, and immersive — Hilfiger continued with the see-now, buy-now model, completing the fifth iteration last month in Shanghai.

“He is an iconic designer who embodies the classic all-American aesthetic, [and] he uses his unique connections and collaborations with the music industry, influencers and models like Gigi Hadid to stay connected to the young consumer,” said Stephanie Muehlhausen, women’s accessories fashion director for Macy’s.

So far, the designer has put on live fashion shows for thousands of people to participate in via a shoppable livestream. He’s also produced interactive pop-up parties like a massive carnival at New York’s South Street Seaport in 2016.

“[Consumers] want immediate gratification,” said Hilfiger. “So we created the see-now, buy-now, and we decided to take it on a world tour. It’s always on the edge of what is new in innovation and new in digital.”

The Disruption

For the last several seasons, Hilfiger has consistently aimed to upend the fashion norms. And it has worked across multiple product categories.

The shoe business, licensed to Marc Fisher Footwear, is projected to have stronger sales in the coming months.

“We are planning our business to be up dramatically based on not only the times but because of the brand,” said Susan Itzkowitz, president of Marc Fisher Footwear Co. “Tommy reaches all facets of the consumer. He is doing so many strategic things in terms of marketing and how to propel the brand, and on how to take it to the next level. We believe that sneakers are a huge opportunity both in men’s and women’s.”

Hilfiger, too, sees the potential for his footwear business to grow, thanks to the hot sneaker market.

Tommy Hilfiger
Tommy Hilfiger inside is New York showroom, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott Photo

“We are continually picking categories in which to grow,” he said. “Footwear and accessories have been underdeveloped, in our opinion, and we believe there is tremendous growth in that area. [With Marc Fisher], we are growing [it].”

The saturation of the sneaker market and a ’90s nostalgia has prompted many designers to revisit references from the past — a sweet spot that’s not lost on Hilfiger.

“It gave me impetus to go back to the archives and reinvent or re-create a lot of what existed, but in a new way,” he explained. “I never lost sight of that thought process and that idea that was streetwear.”

That “new way” happens to be with one of the industry’s biggest newsmakers of the moment: Kith’s Ronnie Fieg.

This fall, the retailer and lifestyle brand launched a collaborative line filled with polo shirts, denim jackets, logo tees and basketball sneakers that reinterpreted Hilfiger’s iconic ’90s catalog.

For Fieg, it was a chance to work with someone he had long admired.

In an Instagram post, Fieg paid tribute to Hilfiger, writing: “As kids growing up in the ’90s, we weren’t just buying your clothes, we were entering your world. Two decades later, I realize I never left. I know what we are doing is bridging a gap for the culture. … Passing on that feeling you established years ago to today’s generation is what I’m most passionate about.”

The collection sold out within hours of its launch last month.

“Ronnie has his finger on the pulse more than anyone else today,” said Hilfiger. “He has a very specific vision on what product should be.”

Embracing Democracy

Whether it’s tapping unconventional faces or challenging the seasonal cycle, Hilfiger has always played by his own rules.

“There are few — if any — designers who embrace technology and the changing industry in the way Tommy does,” said CFDA president and CEO Steven Kolb. “His success with collaborations such as the one with Kith, his understanding of the power of influencers and his shift to a see-now, buy-now fashion show are proof that he is not afraid to challenge the status quo.”

And he is doing just that with model Harlow, one of the faces, along with Baldwin, of the Tommy Icons capsule collection for fall ’18.

“People who were overlooked in the past are now being celebrated,” said Hilfiger. “As an inclusive and democratic brand, we’ve always thought about how we become more inclusive.”

Tommy Hilfiger
“If I’m going to be known, it’s not going to be for just having a brand,” said Hilfiger.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott Photo

Hilfiger continued: “People are waking up, and it’s becoming more democratic.”

The label has been an advocate for diversity and inclusivity since its founding. And he has continued to expand on that vision, with a line of adaptive apparel for adults and children. The collections offer modified mainstream apparel for differently abled consumers. Modifications to clothing include magnetic closures and zippers, Velcro and pull-on pant loops.

After seeing the special-needs community being vastly underserved, Hilfiger said he wanted to assist.

“[It was] about helping people feel good about themselves, and if they could wear the same clothes as everyone else, it would help their self-esteem. When we launched children’s wear [in 2016], we got emails and letters saying this is changing kids’ lives,” he said.

The fall ’18 adaptive line will hit this month.

Such democratic vision shaped the industry and cemented Hilfiger’s fashion legacy as an American icon.

“If I’m going to be known, it’s not going to be for just having a brand,” said Hilfiger. “I want to be known for doing good in life.”

Tommy Hilfiger
Tommy Hilfiger, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott Photo

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